'Electrospective' - Part One

                            

As the decade approaches its conclusion, there has been much to mull over in music since the Millenium.

But aside from the drab packaged pop groups, the nasal indie rockers with their minimal and repetitive chords and the gangster rap wannabes with their message to shock, there has been some inventive and experimentalist musicianship throughout this decade which has received critical acclaim.

Here's the first part of a retrospective appreciation in chronological order of five artists and their albums whose music has captured audiences through electronic and innovative experimentation since the year 2000, with a reminder of some hidden gems that may have been forgotten and are worth investigating.

ARTIST: Goldfrapp.

ALBUM: Felt Mountain.

LABEL: Mute.

RELEASED: September 2000.

GENRE: "Electronica", "Trip-Hop", Ambient.

FAMOUS for their song Lovely Head, which gained copious airtime during 2001 when used in the One2One TV advert, Goldfrapp, formed in 2000, released an ambient and mystical soundscape in Felt Mountain.

Consisting of lead singer and keyboardist Alison Goldfrapp and producer/synth engineer Will Gregory, the electronic duo penned an album shortlisted for the 2001 Mercury Prize - the prize existing since 1992 with Goldfrapp eventually losing to PJ Harvey - for the album's innovative influences towards 1960s pop and folk music, while drawing from film scores like James Bond.

The album's opener, Lovely Head, which witnesses Alison provide the memorable whistling notes, with keyboard sitar folk guitar and a synthetic siren of derranged proportions and ambient synth strings and precise rhythm, offered a devotion to Goldfrapp's love of Shirley Bassey and a cabaret sound, but intertwining with contemporary pop chords and a chillout layered sound.

While the opener remains the most famous of Felt Mountain - with the album only reaching #57 - the remainder draws its ambient, dreamy influence with Goldfrapp's at times Sharleen Spiteri (Texas lead vocalist) like vocal providing soulful depth of which Amy Winehouse is renowned for.

Goldfrapp's debt to her childhood and film scores devotion and amalgamation of the isolation she felt during recording of the album in a Wiltshire bungalow with Gregory, is evident on the mystical and eerie tracks, Paper Bag, Pilots, Deer Stop, the title track and Utopia - with the latter containing Goldfrapp's soaring choral vocals and melodic keyboard and mad synthetic chords of Kate Bush-like proportions and latterly Florence & The Machine.

The album - which was later certified Gold in the UK despite its initial inconspicuous chart placing - when concentrating on lyricisim is minimal, dealing with themes including wolves being whipped outside Tudor houses and an obsession with the opposite sex, of which both themes would later be dealt with on the sexually obsessed and at times inferior follow-up, Black Cherry in 2003 and the mainstream, yet intelligently written pop hit, Supernature in 2005.

But perhaps Goldfrapp's most bizarre and wonderous work from their debut, Felt Mountain is the best they have written and produced so far and compares to the work by Portishead and Massive Attack in the '90s. Alison and Gregory's partnership always provides success, but most strikingly with the ambience of Felt Mountain.

Felt Mountain RATING: 8/10.

ARTIST:  Radiohead.

ALBUM: Kid A.

LABEL: Parlophone.

RELEASED: October 2000.

GENRE: Electronic, Alternative Rock.

FOR Radiohead fans in the 1990s, the thought that the band would embody and draw inspiration from 1970s Krautrock/"Berlin era" sounds of Kraftwerk, Neu! and David Bowie and the techno layering of the "Electronica pioneers", Underworld, would surely have seemed incomprehensible.

However lead vocalist Thom Yorke, Colin and Jonny Greenwood and company marked a stylistic change through 2000's Kid A - similar to U2's Zooropa in 1993 - and adopted a spacey, synthetic and experimentalist approach, contrasting the early trademark rockability of Creep, High & Dry and Karma Police and churning out melodic, measured masterpieces with guitars given a fringe role and exchanged with a greater prominence for strings, brass and keyboards.

The album was a huge success, reaching #1 in the UK and the US, but did alienate Radiohead's guitar-loving contingent, devoted to The Bends and Ok Computer along the way.

But while earlier melodic and timeless records by Radiohead in the '90s like Street Spirit (Fade Out) and No Surprises encapsulated the tinkling aesthetic with rock bombast, harnessed by the desperately curious vocals of Yorke, Kid A, with its David Byrne and Talking Heads sound, developed the previous potential glimpes of melodic electronic music which littered the UK in the 1990s and became a thoughtful and precise alternative.

Examples of Kid A's genius - with the album receiving a Grammy Award in the US for Best Alternative Album and a Grammy nomination for Album of The Year - include the cold, eerie, minimalist sound layered on an icy, yet emphatic rhythm on Idioteque, the mental vocoder vocals on Everything In Its Right Place with fuzzy synthesizer and the quiet building, yet gradually moving to a crescendo of previously subtle string arrangements and electronic drums sound on the album's title track, Kid A, accompanied with robotic vocoder.

The National Anthem meanwhile is a jazzy and bass-driven number while Optimistic did return Radiohead to their traditional guitar sound, without ever departing from their new sustained chord elegance through string and brass chords.

Kid A, like its follow-up Amnesiac highlights the emphasis on Cubase and Pro-Tool computer programming which helped enhance the Oxfordshire group's textures and while experimenting in the former software's then infancy stage, Radiohead ensured Kid A was an emphatic, melodious, dark and eerie ambient treat of a new direction for its faithful fans. 

Kid A RATING: 8.5/10.

ARTIST: Royksopp.

ALBUM: Melody A.M.

LABEL: Wall Of Sound.

RELEASED: October 2001.

GENRE: "Downtempo", "Trip Hop", Ambient.

FOLLOWING fellow Norwegian group A-Ha's musical domination of the late 1980s, Royksopp returned Scandinavian music to the mainstream in the UK with release of their successful electronic debut album, Melody A.M.

Consisting of Torbjorn Brundtland and Svein Berge, Norwegian duo Royksopp introduced the "noughties" to some of the spacey, fuzzy and danceable sounds of electronic music with #9 charting album in the UK, Melody A.M. and it paid off a treat.

Memorable singles Eple - a much renowned and played chillout classic, particularly on Ministry of Sound's chillout compilations and sampling You're As Right As Rain by Bob James - and the simplistic but cherished So Easy, containing a sample of Blue On Blue by Gals & Pals, embodied the duo's devotion to relaxed, downtempo but innovative and exciting filtered layering and pitch bending melodic tunes with precise and successful effect, as both singles reached the UK Top 30, #16 and #21 respectively upon their re-release in 2002 and 2003.

The more upbeat and repetitive Poor Leno, which scraped the UK Top 40 in 2002, reaching #38, helped open their sound to a wider audience who had regarded Royksopp's work as purely ambient and sonic, rather than with a more beat-driven and emphatic edge, while the track Sparks contains ethereal synth strings and klunky bass and nylon guitar sounds and a sad, desperate lyricism envoking thoughts of lost love.

The mad bleeps, tinkling and clunks throughout the album are present on A Higher Place - containing a sample of 1970s synthesizer wizard and film score composer, Jean Michelle Jarre's Wooloomooloo, Royksopp's Night Out and enhance the tradition on Royksopp's debut album to focus strongly on purely instrumental tracks rather than devote time to lyrical storytelling, except for the latter track on the album, Remind Me, an elegant and humming synth-string and synth-bass penned number, exploring intelligently realistic lyrics of love and companionship.

While follow-up albums The Understanding and 2009's Junior - follow-up Senior is set to be released during late 2009 - gained modest success and a Top 30 album chart placing each, Melody A.M. is regarded as Royksopp's most successful and experimentally exciting album and is not hard to appreciate why, with its influence from classical and ambient compositions remaining omnipresent.

Melody A.M. RATING: 8/10.

ARTIST: Moby.

ALBUM: 18.

LABEL: Mute.

RELEASED: May 2002.

GENRE: "Electronica", Alternative Rock, Ambient.

BEING supposedly related to Moby Dick author, Herman Melville, is one thing, but being able to overshadow his great-great-great granduncle's legacy, is a monumental achievement for Richard Melville Hall, better known as Moby.

The New York born DJ and producer, a multi-instrumentalist and classically trained musician who can play the keyboard, guitar, bass guitar and drums and provide vocals, finally saw his experimental-yet-mainstream work accepted in 1999 with the worldwide hit, Play, which contained the successful hit, Porcelain, while the album saw 10 million copies sold worldwide.

So to emulate an album as popular and as successful as Play would be a huge challenge for Moby and his littering of instruments, including his beloved samplers and synthesizers in his Harlem flat and studio, where his idol and good friend David Bowie lives nearby.

18 arrived in May 2002 and reminded audiences of Moby's unique sampling style and of his diverse genre based music with his subtle ambience and chillout aesthetic accompanied by precise rhythmic drum and bass-driven arrangements alongside his catchy melodic tuneful tracks, all harnessed by his aforementioned mostly sampled lyricisim.

Hits from 18 include the Moby sung, Extreme Ways - used in the soundtrack for the film The Bourne Ultimatum - which includes scratchy guitar and repetitive hook-laden synth and keyboard melodies and chords and a lyrical desperation set in an uptempo format, which helped the track peak just inside the UK Top 40 at #39 and the successful We Are All Made of Stars, which reached #11 in the UK thanks to Moby's pleasant, unique vocals and a warm and attractive guitar and synth riff.

Other gems from 18 include In This World, which reached #35 in the UK, In My Heart, Signs of Love, Sunday (The Day Before My Birthday), One Of These Mornings and the hip-hop influenced Jam For The Ladies - hip-hop a genre that Moby had incorporated in his 1999 single, Bodyrock - and the short-but-sweet Look Back In, which adopts, spacey, ambient and swirling atmospheric synth for a truly grandiose feel, which is felt throughout the album.

Moby's 18 is as good as Play and although only sold four million copies worldwide compared to its predecessor's 10 million, the album, like Play, reached #1 and through its subtle and carefully composed tracks and delicious arrangements, alongside its repetitive samples and simplistic piano, guitar and synth riffs and chords, is an electronic gem that '90s electronic forefathers Fatboy Slim, Leftfield and Orbital would surely have been proud to include in their repertoire.

18 RATING: 9/10.

ARTIST: Rob Dougan.

ALBUM: Furious Angels.

LABEL: BMG.

RELEASED: Disc 1: July 2002, Disc 2: June 2003.

GENRE: "Electronica", "Trip Hop", Ambient, Classical, "Breakbeat".

ROB DOUGAN was once referred to in an interview with The Guardian as a "rather odd musician" and it is not hard to see why.

The album Furious Angels helped the Australian producer and former DJ known as Rob D, gain great critical acclaim for his half live orchestra and choir composed album and electronic synthetic sound, but did not stop critics question his passion for music, after the album took seven years to produce and since its release has seen Dougan declare his disillusion with music and instead see him open a vineyard in 2008 in Languedoc, France.

A tortured genius, similar to the maverick Tubular Bells composer Mike Oldfield - who commented to October's Q Magazine that he "doesn't like music" - Dougan embarked upon recording and production of the album in 1995, with the monstrous chillout classic, Clubbed To Death gaining the track and Dougan, fame, thanks to its renowned use in the film, The Matrix.

However it wasn't until the Kurayamino varation of Clubbed To Death was released - drawing influence from Japanese composer Yukio Mashima, classical composers including Edward Elgar and his Enigma Variations and Frederic Chopin's Prelude No.4 in E Minor - that Dougan, whose influences also include Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and such, gained prominence and commercial success.

Furious Angels which was written and produced by Dougan and heralding to his love of atmospheric and dark electronic music and bluesy vocal delivery of Bruce Springsteen and Cohen, offers the superb mix of real string instrumentation and choir, alongside electronic drum rhythms and synthesized basslines and Dougan's unique soulful, blues vocal and gut-wrenching lyricisim and soul-searching honesty about his life and love through eerily isolated imagery, highlighted on tracks including, Furious Angels, I'm Not Driving Anymore, There's Only Me and Born Yesterday, alongside the catchy, frenetic  and calm mixtured gem that is, Clubbed To Death.

His eclectic appreciation of music and his gentile and classically trained compositions helped Furious Angels overshadow his earlier work as a DJ in London - after being spotted and brought to England by close friend, Rollo Armstrong from electronic group, Faithless -and his pop songwriting he offered to girl group, The Sugababes in 2006.

Whether he will release another album as unique, gravelly-voiced, melodious and dark as Furious Angels remains to be seen. But if Dougan never released another album, his work remains a timeless classic of past and modern influences.

Furious Angels RATING: 9.5/10.

PART TWO WITH FIVE MORE ARTISTS FROM THE DECADE WILL FOLLOW SHORTLY.

'Electrospective' - Part One